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fauna holding aurora’s hands as merryweather and flora look confused in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Image: Disney

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Disney’s Sleeping Beauty takes a lot of flak — but its critics are reading it all wrong

It’s often lumped in with the ‘passive princess’ stories of Disney’s early years, but its princess isn’t the real hero

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Of all the Disney movies featuring passive female protagonists, Sleeping Beauty might be the most misunderstood. If you view it at face value — with Aurora, the titular Sleeping Beauty, as the center character — then Sleeping Beauty is a peculiar movie about a passive princess. Aurora drops out of her own movie halfway through, after being lured into a trap by a wicked fairy. She basically does nothing but sing sweetly, fall asleep, then get rescued. Almost every plot point in Sleeping Beauty is something that happens to her, not something she does.

As the three oldest Disney Princess movies, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs often get the brunt of modern criticism. None of these movies stray particularly far from their fairy-tale origins, which means the princesses in them don’t have much agency when compared to their modern counterparts. They have their own individual quirks, but modern princess protagonists just do more. As part of the Disney Princess brand, the older movies are routinely dismissed as being about women who wait around to be saved by princes, and who don’t actively take control of their stories.

But when it comes to Sleeping Beauty, that description actually isn’t accurate at all. We just need to remember who the movie is actually about. Even though Aurora is a certified Disney Princess, she isn’t the main character. Neither is Phillip, the dashing prince who swoops in to save her. The main characters are actually her three fairy godmothers, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather.

Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather waving their wands Image: Disney

Amid all the hullabaloo about the Disney Princess brand, it’s easy to forget that. The three fairies are the ones who volunteer to protect the princess, and ultimately, they’re the ones who have to figure out how to foil the dark fairy Maleficent, who wants revenge on Aurora’s family because she wasn’t invited to Aurora’s christening. Defeating the big bad villain is usually the hero’s job. Aurora plays virtually no part in that.

The movie devotes a great deal of screen time to Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather’s adventures. They have distinct personalities: Flora is a bit bossy and overbearing; Fauna is emotional and sentimental; Merryweather is grumpy and stubborn. They struggle with raising a teenage ward. They process the grief of surrendering her to her parents after treating her like a daughter for so long. Eventually, they have to face the worst-case scenario when the fate they’ve been protecting her from does happen. But they bounce back, figuring out how to implement the failsafe they concocted years ago, which involves busting a prince out of a dungeon and using him to fight the dragon.

Phillip in the hallway of the dungeon, the three good fairies looking up at him Image: Disney

Phillip fans (if they actually exist) could certainly argue that they’re just supporting his hero story. But consider two big points: One, the fairies have far more screen time, and more personal motivation to save Aurora. And two, for the latter half of the movie, Phillip doesn’t even talk. Both he and Aurora are silent characters after she pricks her finger and collapses. All the discussion comes from the three fairies as they scheme to save the kingdom.

Unlike other Disney matriarchs, who briefly step in to offer worldly advice (like Pocahontas’ Grandmother Willow) or to wave their magic wands and solve problems (like the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella), the three fairies stick around in the story, fighting the good fight every step of the way. Even though they’re technically waving their wands to get Phillip out of jail, he’s simply the means to their end. He is their avatar, providing them with the physical capabilities to storm the castle. Unlike most hero-enabler characters, they don’t disappear after freeing him. While Phillip slashes through a wall of thorny briars, they’re the ones actually dispelling Maleficent’s spells and clearing the obstacles. Phillip stabs the dragon, but they literally guide his sword to pierce its heart.

the three fairies in mini form enchanting phillips sword Image: Disney

Disney heroines — particularly the princesses — face the burden of rapidly evolving audience expectations when it comes to fulfilling arcs for young women. Characters like Ariel and Belle were once considered progressive solely because they made their own choices, putting them steps ahead of their earlier Disney counterparts. When their films first debuted, they were praised as active agents in their own stories, unapologetically going after what they wanted.

But a decade or so later, many people criticized their stories for being romantically focused, with the characters throwing their dreams aside for men. Storylines that were groundbreaking in one time period don’t necessarily carry the same weight in the next generation. Looking back through modern lenses, these older movies understandably don’t hold up. But sometimes they get a lot of flak for problems that don’t actually exist, simply because we’re looking back on them in the wrong way.

merrweather, flora, and fauna watching from the eaves as Aurora gets her happy ending Image: Disney

With Sleeping Beauty, we simply need to recalibrate our expectations for what makes a main character. Here, it isn’t the young woman, nor is it the young man. It’s the three older women. Through this lens, not only is Sleeping Beauty surprisingly groundbreaking in terms of women’s roles, it also gives the fairy tale an oddly modern edge.

It’s popular now to reimagine fairy tales through different angles, like Enchanted’s playful dismantling of Disney movie tropes, or every modern update of Cinderella that attempts to flesh out the folk tale’s original heroine, to varying degrees of success. 2014’s Maleficent put a spin on Sleeping Beauty by telling the story from the villain’s point of view, but Sleeping Beauty itself already strayed from typical fairy-tale conventions.

After all, Aurora is on most of the merchandise, but the real stars of Sleeping Beauty are three older women, all with distinct personalities, who quibble about the best way to enact their plans, but are immensely capable at magic, and save not only a princess, but a whole dang kingdom. Forget about 1959; that’s rare to see in 2023.

Sleeping Beauty is streaming on Disney Plus, and available for rental or purchase on Amazon, Redbox, and other digital platforms.

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